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I beg to move,
That this House
has considered peace and human rights in Colombia.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller, and to lead this important debate.
The human rights situation in Colombia is out of control; state violence in Colombia is out of control. The 2016 peace agreement has mechanisms to address those issues, but it has not been implemented anywhere close to the levels that it should have been. The Colombian Government are refusing to recognise the scale of the problem; instead, they are seeking to present a squeaky clean image internationally while innocent civilians are being murdered.
Let us be clear: recent events in Colombia have been condemned internationally by Governments, the UN, the Organisation of American States, and politicians from Parliaments across the world. It is essential that our own Government do everything that they can to hold the Colombian Government to account. We cannot support trade deals and training programmes for the Colombian police without also condemning the state violence. We need to increase our practical support for the peace process.
I have visited Colombia on two occasions—in 2013 and more recently in 2018—on delegations to review the human rights situation and the implementation of the peace agreement. On those visits, I met a wide range of stakeholders. What I heard then and what I see now is incredibly worrying. I know that many in this House follow closely the situation in Colombia, and we need to keep doing all that we can to improve the human rights situation and to ensure that the hope given to so many by the peace agreement is not destroyed.
The timing of the debate is pertinent in the light of the recent protests and horrifying police repression of the protesters. Earlier this year, millions of Colombians took to the streets. The response of the Colombian police was to treat the protesters, who were from all sectors of Colombian society, as if they were an enemy to be defeated. The police responded to the protests as if they were at war. The images and videos have been horrifying.
There were numerous incidents and videos showing the close collaboration of armed civilians—or para-state actors—and the Colombian police. That has been highlighted for decades but repeatedly denied by supporters and defenders of the Colombian political elites. In Cali on
The response of the Colombian Government to the protests and violence of the police only highlighted further that they are more determined to stigmatise protesters than ensure their protection. As protesters were being killed, the Defence Minister and the Vice President made statements trying to link protesters to criminal organisations, while the Justice Minister—unbelievably—tried to claim that the protests formed part of an international criminal conspiracy to tarnish the image of Colombia.
These slurs are unacceptable and we must unreservedly condemn them. I give my full support to all those protesting peacefully in Colombia, and I will do whatever I can to defend their right to protest. I hope everyone in this debate will give their full support to that sentiment.
I welcome the investigations opened into the abuses committed by state agents over recent months, but they are not enough. The police are alleged to have killed 13 people during protests in 2020 and to have violently attacked protesters in 2019, but in almost all those cases there has been no justice for victims and their families. Will the Minister join me in fully condemning the violence against protesters and in calling for judicial and disciplinary processes for abuses during these protests and in previous years?
Colombia has long been one of the world’s most dangerous countries in which to be a human rights activist; according to the UN, 133 people were killed in 2020. It is still the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists, with 22 killed last year. Colombia was also the most dangerous country in the world for environmental defenders in 2019, with 64 killed and a further 44 killed between
Now I turn to the cause for hope in Colombia. The 2016 peace agreement was a historic moment that brought genuine optimism to many, particularly in the most impoverished regions of the country. Although overall implementation has been slow, and in some areas non-existent, there have been important advances. I congratulate everyone, on all sides, who has played a role.
The advancement of the transitional justice system should be particularly celebrated, and I congratulate FARC on its unwavering commitment to the peace process. The former combatants are trying to create new lives under enormous difficulty, and the former commanders are fully engaged in the peace process by accepting responsibility for their roles in crimes committed during the war.
Just last week, the transitional justice court issued its first accusations against a former general and nine other members of the military for their role in the murder of civilians. It is essential that there is full engagement with this process from state actors who stand accused, and international support from the UK Government for the transitional justice system is also essential.
I hope that the Colombian Government will honour their numerous declarations of commitment to the peace process during their final 12 months in office. I hope that the Minister will reiterate the Government’s support for the transitional justice court and its recent steps to investigate crimes committed by FARC and the Colombian state.
It is extremely worrying that former FARC combatants continue to be targeted. Over 270 have been killed since the deal was signed. In April of this year, eight former combatants who were inside the peace process were killed in just nine days. Their protection is an absolute priority, as is the advancement in the many areas of the agreement that have seemingly stalled, particularly the implementation of the rural development programmes and the illicit crops substitution programmes.
The cocaine economy is often pointed to as the cause of the insecurity and violence in the countryside, yet of the 99,000 families signed up to the mutually agreed crop substitution programme, only 7% have actually received support for alternative crops. Without an alternative economic option, the coca growers have no way of surviving.
The peace agreement is comprehensive, and we must do all we can to ensure all its chapters are fully implemented. I welcome the UK Government’s repeated statements of support for the peace process over recent years, but I am sure we all agree that that must be backed up with maximum presence and pressure wherever, and whenever, necessary. As we approach five years of the peace agreement, I will finish by calling on the Minister to ensure we honour our role as penholder, taking a lead in international efforts to support a full implementation of the Colombian peace agreement, which is undoubtedly the best hope we have to bring an end to the human rights crisis and see Colombia truly in peace.
Order. I intend to move to the Front-Bench speeches at 4.13 pm, so the maths dictate around four minutes each if everybody is going to get to speak Perhaps, hon. Members could bear that in mind and show courtesy to others.
Thank you, Mrs Miller, for your guidance on the four minute limit, which I will try my very best to adhere to. I congratulate my hon. Friend Kate Osborne for securing this debate, and for the House authorities for allowing it to take place.
Colombians are a good-natured and democratic people, who love liberty and life. However, they are experiencing a prolonged crisis, the roots of which lie deep, both in Colombian society, but, above all, in the current failing economic model. The economy is in freefall, and the Government wanted to raise taxes on the hardest hit, so social cohesion is breaking down as inequality accelerates in this wonderful country.
Almost half of all Colombians now live in poverty—15% in the most extreme conditions. Meanwhile, the richest 10% in Colombia earn two fifths of all the country’s income. Many Colombians will speak of endemic elite corruption, and of the power of the cartels in the economy. There is little surprise that throughout the country, civilians, in very large numbers, have become increasingly active in fighting for justice. I am sure that all parts of this House express our solidarity with all those citizens fighting for a just settlement in Colombia, or anywhere else in the world.
Undoubtedly, wealthier Colombians, and the international corporations that have become implanted there, have felt threatened by this citizen activity. Therefore, this very right-wing Colombian Government have done what such Governments always do, everywhere, which is to defend extreme privilege, wealth and power, even at the expense of their own people’s freedoms and, sadly, at the expense of some people’s lives.
The Colombian criminal justice system has, too often, been used as a Government tool to attack human rights in an attempt to supress this insipient citizen movement. We have heard the figures given by my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow about the number of deaths: 5,000 cases of police violence; 44 police killings; 2,000 arbitrary arrests; 77 protesters who have been disappeared—and that is only in the last three or four months. The ITUC —International Trade Union Confederation—and Amnesty have declared that Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist fighting back or an environmentalist. They might have added being an indigenous activist or an LGBTQ rights activist.
Let me turn to the involvement of the British Government. The UK’s College of Policing has been training Colombian police officers. Our very own Crown Prosecution Service provided so-called criminal justice advisers. The British Government spent £2.3 million training specialised cadres of police in Colombia. There are other programmes as well, too lengthy to mention. British policing, however, is meant to be based on the principle of consent, so what on earth have we, the British, been doing, apparently in cahoots with a Government that seems to remove civil liberties and human rights from what ought to be a central role in their criminal justice system in Colombia?
Finally, I turn to the Minister. The British Government need to come off the fence and to do so clearly. There is no evidence that the situation in Colombia is improving—in fact, it is deteriorating—so there can be no justification in offering words of good will, in effect, to a President who is a human rights abuser on the grandest scale. Minister, please condemn the abuse of civil rights in Colombia and ensure that all UK programmes either comply totally with democratic values henceforth or cease immediately.
I am genuinely grateful to my hon. Friend Kate Osborne for securing the debate and for introducing it so skilfully. What she outlined matters; it matters to anyone who respects things such as the right to peaceful protest or even the most basic human rights. What has been going wrong in Colombia in recent months is shocking, even for a country that is used to shock.
The demonstrations against Government policies have, in sheer scale, been unprecedented over the many years that I have known Colombia, and yet those demonstrations have been overwhelmingly peaceful. That has been acknowledged by the United Nations, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the European Union. Even the Colombian Government have accepted that they were, overwhelmingly, peaceful demonstrations.
As my hon. Friend said, however, that was met by the Defence Minister calling the demonstrations a “terrorist threat” by “criminal organisations”. That is not simply ludicrous, but dangerous, because that has led to the death toll following the protests, which my hon. Friends talked about, and to the arbitrary arrests and use of massive levels of violence by the Colombian police who, frankly, have been out of control. That included 28 sexual assaults on people held in custody, as my hon. Friend pointed out, including the sad case of 17-year-old Alison Melendez who was raped by the police and then went home to commit suicide. Nothing can bring back Alison or undo that damage to her family. It matters, and it matters to those of us who care about Colombia, as we should.
The peace accords in Colombia were a wonderful step forward, but as we have seen in the use of violence by police against the demonstrations, we have seen in effect in a denial for those who gave up guerrilla warfare: 278 members of FARC have been murdered since the peace accord was signed and there has been a lack of progress on land reform and on things such as funding those who give up the growing up of coca leaf for manufacture into cocaine. Those are deliberate policies of the Colombian Government and, being deliberate, they are sabotaging the peace effort.
Like my hon. Friend Jon Trickett, I must say to the Minister, I have seen condemnation from different sources—the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has condemned such levels of violence recently and even in the United States, there have been calls for restraint—but few words from Ministers in the British Government. The Minister must stand up and make it clear that we denounce the kind of violence we are seeing from the Colombian police and military.
We need to look at our relationship in terms of police reform. Yes, it is right and proper that we push for police reform and, as penholder at the UN, the British Government have a unique role in bringing forward verification missions to see that that takes place. However, the big prize has got to be that we look at the capacity under the democratic clause in the UK-Andean pact, which makes it clear that human rights violations trigger certain consequences. It is about time that our Government looked at that human rights clause and considered whether now we have got to trigger it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller, and I congratulate Kate Osborne on securing the debate. It is the first we have had on Colombia since 2019 in Westminster Hall, and timely to have it before the recess and while the situation in Colombia is deteriorating so seriously. It is unfortunate that the Minister is all by herself on the Conservative Benches. It would be nice to see some Government Back Benchers show an interest in this, and perhaps they might reflect on whether they have any activists or, indeed, expat Colombians in their constituencies whose voices should be heard.
Some of those voices are communicated to us through organisations such as Justice for Colombia, and ABColombia and its partner organisations, Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund, the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, Christian Aid and others. I thank them for their support in helping us prepare. For many years, I heard about Colombia and met people from Colombia through SCIAF, and in 2018 I finally had the privilege of visiting the country. Such a lush, beautiful country, rich in its diversity of peoples as well as natural resources and rich in the potential to be a model of sustainable development and conflict resolution. However, it is also at risk of the exact opposite: backsliding from the progress that has been made and falling into the hands of those who would exploit and strip the country of its bounty, oppress its people and destroy their cultures. We are hearing about that in the debate today.
The context caused by the pandemic and the tax rises to pay for economic support are leading to dreadful outbreaks of violence, and we have heard some of the statistics. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reckons that at least 56 people—54 civilians and two police officers—were killed up to
As Jon Trickett said, some of the ongoing frustrations among the population, particularly among younger generations, are very deep rooted. When constitutional rights and processes exist on paper but are not followed in practice, it is perhaps not surprising that this leads to increased frustration, which ultimately expresses itself in violence. That sense of powerlessness when communities see the land that their ancestors have worked for generations given over to mining or monocropping, and especially for indigenous communities, for whom the land has important religious or spiritual significance. We can understand how a sense of desperation leads to the lure of the quick buck that can come from coca production, and the country is now sadly producing more cocaine than it did in the 1990s—a very serious challenge for all of us.
The country is moving into the ranks of developed countries, yet there is massive inequalities. There is lively downtown Bogotá, all built up, and then there is the Chocó region, which is one of the poorest in the world, let alone in Latin America. That tension becomes palpable, but where there is risk, there can also be reward. That is why there is a need for action and support for all sides of the disputes.
I support the proposals that have been put forward by CAFOD, ABColombia and others that the UK should be looking to activate the democratic clause in the UK-Andean free trade agreement, that it should be pushing for civil society participation in the implementation of the peace accord, and the points about police reform, which have already been made.
This is the opportunity to prove what a soft power superpower is like. This is the opportunity to prove the worth of the merger of the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that so many of us were concerned about. Yes, step up diplomatic efforts, but also support crop diversification, supporting education, and tax and regulate multilaterals and hold them to account, especially if they are based in the UK or listed on our stock exchanges. Peace is possible and the rewards could be great, but equally, if the scales tip the other way, the results would be devastating. As others have said, the UK has a special responsibility as the UN penholder on Colombia. It should live up to that responsibility.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller. I congratulate my hon. Friend Kate Osborne on securing this timely debate. I will continue on the theme of the recent abuses committed by the Colombian police against protesters, which are absolutely appalling. Millions of Colombians—mostly young people—came on to the streets during April and May this year to call for an end to the growing poverty and state violence and for a full implementation of the peace agreement. The response from the Colombian police was violence.
As has already been said, up to 44 protesters were killed, according to human rights organisations. There were also reports of sexual violence, and thousands of arbitrary arrests. As young people are beaten, killed and sexually abused on the streets of Colombia, we need the UK Government to step up to the plate and send a clear message that such blatant human rights abuses will not be tolerated or accepted. We must immediately review our training programme with the Colombian police and suspend it immediately if it is going to units involved in the repression of peaceful protests.
The Colombian Government have continually failed to accept responsibility for the violence carried out by the police. Instead, they have tried to hoodwink the international community. Just yesterday, during a session at the UN Security Council, the Colombian Foreign Minister and vice-president, Marta Lucía Ramírez, bizarrely blamed the killing of protesters on people who infiltrated the marches and committed vandalism. We should not be fooled: we have witnessed the Colombian police attack peaceful protesters over the last few years, not just the last couple of months. We cannot stay silent in our calls for justice as the Colombian Government try to deflect our attention. I hope that the Minister might make representations to the Colombian authorities to ensure full investigations of all alleged killings by the Colombian police during recent protests.
I was in Colombia in 2014. I visited the city of Buenaventura. I was there with a local human rights organisation, a church organisation, and I went into a neighbourhood where paramilitaries were using local houses to chop people into pieces while they were still alive. I met the communities—predominantly Afro-Colombian—whose children had to listen to the screams of the victims, and who had then organised to remove the paramilitaries from the streets. It was horrifying, but it was inspirational in equal measure.
Even though that was seven years ago, sadly we know that violence against activists from these communities continues. The facts and the figures have been recited by colleagues already. We really need an immediate implementation of public policy to dismantle paramilitary successor groups, as stipulated in the peace agreement. If there is true commitment to bringing an end to the killings of human rights defenders, why after their three years in government have we still not seen a plan of action to dismantle these illegal armed groups that have such deep, historic links to the Colombian state?
Will the Minister reiterate our Government’s commitment to ensure the full implementation of the peace agreement and explain what steps they have taken as the penholder at the UN Security Council, as described earlier? I also call on the Colombian Government to use their last year in office to do everything they can to advance as much of the implementation as they possibly can. I know that many of my colleagues will continue to monitor the situation closely.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller, and I will try my best to speak as fast as I can in my thick Scottish accent. I congratulate Kate Osborne on securing this important debate.
We have seen poverty increase around the world as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. In Colombia, however, the resulting economic suffering has proved all too much to bear in a country that has pre-existing social and political discontent. Since protests began this year, the demands of the Colombian people have increased beyond economic reform. Protesters have been calling for the dismantling of the riot police, the creation of a universal basic income programme and free university tuition. Those demands have grown out of increasing inequality, lack of social mobility and what many deem to be the oppression of marginalised groups by police forces and the Government.
As the hon. Member for Jarrow mentioned in her opening remarks, there have been a number of deaths in Colombia. It has been reported that more than 220 social and community leaders were killed in 2020 alone, with claims that the majority were killed at the hands of the Colombian state security forces. At least 18 trade unionists have also been killed. According to the UN verification mission, a total of 133 human rights defenders were murdered. The deaths have led to the condemnation of the country by rights groups such as Amnesty International, which has stated that Colombia is widely recognised as the most dangerous country in the world for people who defend human rights. Military intelligence has also been found to be spying on human rights defenders, journalists, High Court magistrates and members of the opposition. In fact, information has been sold to neo-paramilitaries.
The response of Colombia’s riot police to the ongoing protests exemplifies the country’s failure to protect and uphold the human rights of its people. The police have responded to overwhelmingly peaceful social protests with excessive force and violence, as confirmed by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. It has been confirmed that at least 30 protesters have been killed, and over 100 people are reported to have disappeared. Hundreds have suffered serious injury, and over 800 arbitrary arrests have taken place. As many Members have spoken about, there have been reports of cases of sexual violence at the protests.
It is evident that the Colombian people’s cry for the dismantling of the riot police is not unfounded, and comprehensive police reform is urgently needed to prevent significant violations in the future. We must urge the Colombian Government to take urgent measures to protect the human rights of their citizens and to initiate a comprehensive police and security reform effort, to ensure that officers respect the right to peaceful assembly and bring those responsible for abuse to justice.
In the midst of the horror and unrest taking place in Colombia, it was heart-warming to note that members of Edinburgh and Glasgow’s growing Colombian community have taken to the streets of Scotland in solidarity with those in Colombia. This act of international solidarity is representative of the people of Scotland, the Scottish Government and the Scottish National party’s care and commitment to social justice around the world.
It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Mrs Miller, and I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I thank my hon. Friend Kate Osborne for securing this important debate, and for her powerful contribution. I also thank my constituents in Liverpool, West Derby who have been in touch with me regularly and have asked me to raise their concerns about human rights violations in Colombia directly with the Minister.
I previously raised my concerns in the House on
Since late April the situation has become worse. There has been a violent police response to mass protests organised to object to the proposed tax reform and in response to longer-running demands about growing poverty, the murder of social activists and the failed implementation of the peace agreement. Between
There has been international condemnation of the Colombian Government’s response to the mass mobilisation and protests. The UN has condemned the use of excessive force, and the EU has called for the disproportionate use of force by the security forces to stop. Will the Minister today join those calls and issue a full condemnation of the violence of the Colombian police and of the Government’s comments undermining the right to protest?
I visited Colombia with JFC—Justice for Colombia—in 2018, and I met some of the most inspiring people I have ever met: trade unionists, mainly mothers, who put their lives in danger every single day to fight for a more equal society. The sight of them getting into vehicles with armed guards is something that will not leave me when I think back. I left with the impression of a beautiful country and a proud nation who had seen the glimpse of a chance of peace, but who distrust that the Government would honour their side of the agreement. The past two years have proved them heartbreakingly correct. Overwhelmingly all parties in 2018 said that international pressure would be needed to eventually achieve the peace that they all sought. Will the Minister work with her Colombian counterpart to bring about the implementation of the 2016 peace agreement that gives hope and a real chance to end the human rights violations taking place now?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Miller. I congratulate my hon. Friend Kate Osborne on securing this important debate, particularly because recently I spoke to students at Saint Gabriel’s College in Camberwell, where I am proud to be a governor.
South London, where my constituency of Streatham is, is home to one of the largest Colombian communities in the UK, and many will have attended the solidarity protests that we saw recently in London. I was so proud of the students and their lobby, and I want them to know that, as young as they are, they have power as citizens and their words can make it directly to Parliament, so I will use mostly their words today.
Gabriel explained to me how Colombians feel the Government are not listening to them. He talked about the sheer force and unity of the protests recently organised by the country’s largest trade union, joined by teachers, university students, trade unions, Afro-Colombians and indigenous groups; about a united demand to withdraw the proposal that originally levelled a sales tax on public services and some food; and how years of inequality and injustice, combined with covid lockdowns with no support, had thrown even more people out of work and left many Colombians destitute.
Juan-Pablo was born in Cali, at the epicentre of the violence. He explained how important the place is for the whole country because of agriculture, and that that is why the paro nacional started, and that the Government were using it to make food more expensive. The students had done their research, and Juan David explained how the UK’s College of Policing has been training Colombian police over the past three years. They questioned how the UK, the country that some of their families had come to after fleeing human rights abuses, could be so openly complicit in the human rights abuses committed in Colombia.
Yeray, Sara and Alexia, some of the youngest in the group—11, 12 and 13—along with Manuel, explained how worried they are about family members in Colombia. Students at Saint Gabriel’s College are particularly affected. Many have family members who have been shot or injured, and some have even gone missing—one young man’s father has been missing since March. Lucas, Manuel and Alejandro spoke to me about human rights abuses and inequality, and about the widespread police brutality, sexual assault and murders. They were particularly concerned about the ongoing violence against the LGBT community, and said that even though Colombia appears on paper to have strong rights for LGBT people, those rights are not put into practice there. Women in particular are disadvantaged, with 12 in every 1,000 babies dying before their first birthday, and almost 39% of the country’s Afro-Colombian population live in extreme poverty.
Valentina was particularly concerned about not just the mental health of Colombians there, but that of Colombians in the UK who are watching their families go through many of these things and are helpless to change it. Elisa spoke with pride about Colombia, as did all the students—how they felt about the country in which some of them were born and some of their parents were born. Some, like Santiago, spoke about people their age in Colombia who did not have the same opportunities that he now has, because of the economic situation and because of how exacerbated the violence has become.
Colombians in the UK are calling on the UK Government to promote reform of the Colombian security services and full implementation of the peace accord, and to review the UK’s training of the Colombian police and suspend the selling of riot control equipment and arms exports to Colombia. That is a simple demand.
I will end by paraphrasing the words of Nicolas. He said, “As young Colombians in the UK, we are asking the UK Government to not forget Colombia; to open their eyes to the violence and injustice; and, last but not least, to remember that the United Kingdom acts as the penholder for the Colombian peace process, and to live up to what it has promised.” I ask the Minister to please live up to what the UK has promised, on behalf of those young students who lobbied me so well earlier this year.
Since April, Colombia has been experiencing huge, popular citizen mobilisation against unfair tax reform, poverty, corruption, the murder of social justice activists and the failed implementation of the 2016 peace agreement. These mass protests have included many young people, people from poor urban neighbourhoods and other marginalised groups, and of course the organisation of civil society through the national strike committee.
These demonstrations have been met with unacceptable state violence. According to Colombia’s Foundation for Press Freedom, there were 257 cases of aggression towards journalists covering the protests, with the majority committed by state agents. Since protests began, we across the world have witnessed images and videos of police shooting live ammunition at crowds, firing gas canisters at people’s faces and beating isolated protesters, as well as arbitrary arrests, indiscriminate use of high-grade weaponry, and the launching of tear gas into enclosed spaces. Several videos have shown people in civilian clothing shooting protesters, often while standing alongside police, including an incident that left 10 indigenous protesters injured.
Colombia remains, as others have said, the world’s most dangerous country for environmental defenders: in 2019, 64 environmental activists were murdered. Colombia has also once again been confirmed as the world’s most dangerous country for trade unionists, with 22 killed so far in 2021, according to the International Trade Union Confederation. Community activists also continue to face extremely high levels of violence.
The attempts by the Colombian Government to engage with protesters have been criticised for being so cosmetic, unsubstantial and, in some cases, dishonest. There has been widespread international condemnation of the Colombian Government’s response to the protests, from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the European Union, the American embassy and others. It is therefore shameful that the UK Government have not condemned the unacceptable violence perpetrated by the Colombian police and Government.
The UK embassy in Colombia and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office have said that they are “saddened” by the violence. That neutral, passive language does very little justice to the suffering of the Colombian people at the hands of their own Government. I urge the Minister to rectify that by unequivocally condemning the Colombian state for its deadly and violent treatment of peaceful protesters. I encourage the Foreign Secretary to call on the Colombian Government to engage properly with the proposals of the national strike committee.
It is also essential that the UK uses its diplomatic strength to encourage the Colombian Government to uphold the 2016 peace agreement. It is vital that the UK Government immediately review any aid or training support to the Colombian police and suspend any element linked to human rights abuses. We must immediately cease the sale of weapons, including water cannon, tear gas and batons, that could be used against protesters in Colombia. Just as it was morally reprehensible for the UK and other countries to export to America riot equipment that was used against Black Lives Matter protesters following the murder of George Floyd, it is wrong for peaceful Colombian protesters to be brutalised by equipment sold by Britain.
Ultimately, the UK must use its diplomatic might to protect Colombian protesters, who are exercising their democratic rights and making their voices heard.
The right to protest is a fundamental right that must always be respected. It is therefore extremely alarming that Colombian security forces continue to use lethal force against unarmed protesters. Although we have witnessed widespread human rights violations since April this year, violent repression of public protest has been a constant theme under the Government of Iván Duque. Security forces have regularly attacked and killed protesters, but there have been few visible attempts to curtail their actions, and most abuses remain unpunished.
Last week’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights report found that there was disproportionate use of force by the public security forces. The commission had warned in 2019 that the use of force must be guided by
“legality, strict necessity and proportionality.”
Yet just four days later, ESMAD riot police killed 16-year-old Dilan Cruz as he ran from their attacks.
It is so worrying that the Colombian Government have already said that they will not implement the latest recommendations from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on how to improve the policing of protests. Will the Minister tell us what assessment the British Government have made of that report and of the disproportionate force used during the recent protests?
In September last year, police killed up to 13 unarmed people during protests following the killing of a man in police custody. Shortly afterwards, the Colombian Supreme Court referenced those killings and others when it was declared that the ESMAD riot police systematically violate citizens’ democratic right to peaceful protest, due process and freedom of expression.
The army has also been responsible for the deaths of unarmed civilians in protests. In March 2020, 20-year-old peasant farmer Alejandro Carvajal was killed during protests over the army forcibly removing coca crops in operations that appear to contravene the 2016 peace agreement’s prioritisation of mutually agreed substitution. Several other peasant farmers have been killed in recent years while protesting against military operations in their communities.
In 2019, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called on the Colombian state to stop using the military in situations of public protest, while recommending an in-depth transformation of the Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios riot police and independent investigations into its conduct towards public protest. Sadly, these recommendations are far from being met.
Instead, Colombia’s inspector general recently opened investigations against Opposition Congress Members over their attempts to protect citizens from police violence, after they had criticised the Duque Government’s response to the protest. Last year, Transparency International warned of a concentration of power across Colombian institutions that blurred the separation of powers and threatened the democratic process. Can the Minister say what the British Government will do to promote greater respect for the rights of people to protest in Colombia?
Finally, I am concerned about the continuing targeting of trade unionists and environmental defenders. Historically, Colombia has been the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists, with 3,200 killed since the 1970s. Since the peace deal was signed, 35 members of FENSUAGRO—the Federación Nacional Sindical Unitaria Agropecuaria—the agricultural workers’ union, have been killed. We must start to see justice for those crimes. Rather than seeking to crush protests, silence the demands around human rights and peace, and target critical politicians, the Colombian Government should respect their citizens’ rights to mobilise and protest peacefully.
I congratulate Kate Osborne on setting the scene and giving us all the chance to participate in this debate.
Recent protests have brought international attention once again on the human rights situation in Colombia. There is considerable concern internationally about the response of the police to protesters and reports of several protesters being killed. The actions of the riot police are particularly alarming—I want to put that on record. I send my condolences to all the victims and their families. I hope that there will be a full and exhaustive investigation, and that those responsible will be held accountable.
My right hon. Friend Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson has a particular interest in Colombia, and so have I. Over many years, I have had a number of invitations to visit Colombia, but I have never had the chance to go due to other commitments. I hope someday that I will have the opportunity to get there.
After a visit to Colombia, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, part of the Organization of American States, said that the Colombian police had used “disproportionate” force, that there was gender-based and racial violence and that there were reports of people being disappeared. Concerns were also expressed about the use of the military during the protests.
One of the commission’s recommendations was to echo the demands of Colombian human rights organisations to move the jurisdiction of the police away from the Ministry of National Defence into a civilian department, such as the Ministry of the Interior. Does the Minister think that can be pursued? I believe it is a necessary step in the context of the ongoing peace process.
I want to speak about the situation for human rights defenders in Colombia. I congratulate them on the great work they have been doing to defend human rights. It is essential that they do not have to put their lives at risk to carry out their work. According to Colombian organisation Somos Defensores, 2020 was the most dangerous year to be a human rights defender in Colombia for more than a decade, with 199 people murdered. According to the organisation Indepaz, over 300 social activists were killed. What can this Government—my Government—do to ensure human rights defenders are more protected in Colombia? We must not drop our focus and commitment to international support to ensure that the Colombian peace agreement is fully implemented.
The recent advances in the transitional justice system are welcome and must be supported, as are the reports of almost 50% of former FARC combatants who have been able to initiate economic projects. However, it is concerning that so many former FARC combatants are still waiting to initiate projects. What has been done to help them? I understand that there needs to be rapid action to ensure they access land to accelerate the process. I have always been supportive of making land available so let us make sure that happens.
Equally, the distribution of land to small-scale farmers, as stipulated in the agreement, has so far unfortunately not advanced fast enough. All advances in the peace process will benefit the work to improve the human rights situation and, conversely, all the work focused on improving the human rights situation and tackling the illegal armed groups that still exist will massively assist efforts to implement the peace agreement.
Coming from Northern Ireland, as I do, let me say that if anyone knows how important peace talks are, it is us in Northern Ireland. I urge the Minister to grasp the opportunity for peace on behalf of those in Colombia, and I sincerely hope we can do something for them.
I am the secretary of the National Union of Journalists parliamentary group, and I want to raise again, as I have done in previous debates on Colombia, the plight of journalists—the abuse of their human rights and the violations of press freedom. The International Federation of Journalists has recently published another report highlighting the targeting of journalists by the Colombian authorities, in particular the killings, physical attacks and obstruction of their work, as well as the undermining of basic press freedoms. This is coming from the national police, public officials and reactionary elements associated with the current Government.
I want to leave the debate with at least some of the words of practitioners in the field in Colombia. Adriana Hurtado Cortés is the president the Colombian Federation of Journalists. Let me quote her directly and briefly:
“There’s an evident regression in the causes of violence against journalists;
they are spied on in the traditional way and they’re harassed on social media.”
She says that politicians stigmatise them through messages on social media and accuse journalists of
“spreading misinformation, damaging democracy and polarizing society.”
Aggression against journalists has again increased. There are threats, physical attacks, killings, smear campaigns, legal actions aimed at censoring their work, illegal espionage, and many journalists forced into exile. There is a lack of labour protection for journalists. As a result of the pandemic, they are in a particularly weak economic situation, but their main concern is the loss of the rule of law, the Government acting with impunity and the slowness of justice when crimes against journalists are investigated.
I repeat what others have said: we now need an extremely strong statement from the Government, which links up with European and other international parties, to condemn the human rights abuses of the Colombian Government. I would like inserted in those condemnations the demand for a free press and the protection of journalists, which is essential for any democratic society.
In the past, we have not had the use of other powers in this country. I would therefore like the Government to start mentioning to Colombian Government officials that we now have the Magnitsky clause and, if necessary, we will use that to target human rights abusers through our own legislative system.
I always make my speeches short. Nobody ever criticises a speech for being too brief, so I always try to be succinct. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller, and to wind up for the SNP in a very constructive and consensual debate. I congratulate Kate Osborne on bringing the matter forward, on her contribution and on the timing of this debate. It is a very opportune moment to consider the situation in Colombia. I was also struck by the contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) and for Airdrie and Shotts (Anum Qaisar-Javed).
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North stressed what is at stake if we get this right: the sustainable development potential for Colombia to be a world leader in all sorts of positive societal changes. He also noted, of course, that coca production is now greater than it was in the 1990s. That has immediate consequences domestically for Colombia, but also for us here and in the wider world.
My hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts stressed, very correctly, how dangerous Colombia is for journalists and activists and the deterioration in their lives in recent months and years.
The SNP stands four-square with the people of Colombia. We are not pro-Government or pro-protester; we want a durable peace for everybody. We acknowledge that we do not have all the answers from this part of the world, but this is an important moment. We need to recognise that the already fragile peace process has been almost overwhelmed by covid. Of course, covid has brought concomitant disasters in the form of health and economic consequences, exacerbating an already very fragile domestic situation.
We are glad that the—to my mind—rather cack-handed tax reform proposals that were the trigger for the recent protests have been shelved for the moment, but we also acknowledge that there remains a financial crisis within Colombian public finances that risks chaos and further deteriorations. We acknowledge the problems facing the Colombian Government, but we firmly state that the response of the Colombian Government to the protests must be condemned and the right to protest must be defended. That is a crucial point to make, because the figures are very stark. In 2020 alone, as we have heard, 220 community and social leaders were killed. Twenty-two trade unionists were killed, and according to the UN Verification Mission in Colombia, at least 133 human rights defenders were killed. Thousands more are currently in jail or suffering harassment.
The UK is in a position to do more on this. As we have heard, the UK is the penholder in the UN on the Colombian peace process, and there are more things that we can do. I hope that today we can make some concrete suggestions to spur more activity. There have been several concrete suggestions, and I have much respect for the Minister; I hope she engages with the constructive nature of this debate. There are a lot of good ideas from all points of the political compass in the House.
In terms of the macroeconomic crisis that Colombia is suffering, if there is not direct assistance, what capacity do we have to offer advice to stabilise the current economic crisis and to help its people through that process? There is also the issue of support in dealing with the covid disaster. It is one that we are all suffering, but perhaps we can assist with theirs. We have heard concerns about the training of the security services and the policing of public order. What consideration have we given to whether that has been misused or abused? With regard to Magnitsky sanctions—we really should have called that something easier—what consideration has been given to targeting individuals within the Colombian regime or elsewhere who have acted poorly? We would like to see greater financial and practical assistance for human rights defender organisations. They are doing a power of work and need more support. We want to see more facilitation of dialogue with FARC and pressure to implement the 2016 peace agreement more actively from the Government. Of course, there is more than one party to that discussion, but the UK could play a greater role.
There are no easy answers to or quick fixes for Colombia’s problems, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North said, this is a test for the UK’s new and, we are told, improved—merged—foreign and development policy at a crucial time for Colombia and for a number of other partners in the region as well. The progress made in 2016 could be lost, and that would be a disaster not just for the people of Colombia but elsewhere. If the Minister and the Government are serious about protecting that, I will just say that there have been a number of constructive suggestions this afternoon. If the Minister is serious about taking those forward, she will continue to have SNP support.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Kate Osborne on bringing this debate to Parliament today. In a very powerful opening speech, she told us that the peace agreement in Colombia was not working. I am sure that every hon. Member present would certainly agree with that. She also said that recent events have been condemned across the world. That is absolutely true. Every day, I receive emails and messages from other countries and from other activists, saying that the peace agreement is not working and that the violence must be condemned. My hon. Friend made a very important point that this Government—the Government of our country—cannot support trade deals with Colombia without condemning the appalling violence that we have all seen on our television screens. The police response, she said, was as if there was a war between the police and their own population—the human rights activists and the people demonstrating against the breakdown of the peace deal and the murder and violence. It was a very powerful opening speech, and I thank her for this debate.
My close friend, my hon. Friend Jon Trickett, who is not in his place at the moment, then made his contribution, talking about the prolonged crisis in Colombia, with the economy in freefall and the Government wanting to raise taxes from the poorest members of the population. He gave us a startling statistic: the richest 10% of Colombians own 40% of the economy, which is quite extraordinary. He said that citizen activity was seen by the state as a threat to the Government, and that the Colombian criminal justice system, which should be there to defend those who are innocent, is actually used as a weapon against the demonstrators.
We also heard from my hon. Friend Tony Lloyd, with whom I work closely on Colombian issues. He said that demonstrations have been peaceful, yet the Defence Minister was calling them dangerous. He said that the Colombian police have engaged in a great deal of violence against their own population, and that 278 members of FARC have been murdered since the peace accord was signed. That is a startling figure, yet FARC is still committed to the peace accord.
Patrick Grady made a powerful contribution, which Alyn Smith mentioned several times. The hon. Member for Glasgow North visited Colombia in 2018, and he mentioned that tax rises were one of the factors leading to street demonstrations.
My hon. Friend Ian Lavery talked about the Colombian Government repeatedly failing to condemn police violence. He said we must ensure that the paramilitaries are dismantled immediately, and he is absolutely right about that.
We also heard from Anum Qaisar-Javed, who is new to the House. She made a powerful contribution and talked about increasing inequality in Colombia. She said that 220 social and community leaders were killed in 2020, as were 133 human rights defenders. Those are statistics that any Government or nation should be deeply ashamed of.
My hon. Friend Ian Byrne talked about individual cases that he wanted the Minister to respond to. He reeled off some horrifying facts about the assault and killing of those individuals, and he asked whether the Minister would condemn the violence. I will obviously let her speak for herself shortly.
My hon. Friend
Claudia Webbe talked about the failure of the implementation of the 2016 peace agreement, the unacceptable state violence—a theme that ran through the debate—and the aggression towards journalists. She talked about gas cannisters being fired in people’s faces. Can you imagine that, Mrs Miller? It is absolutely horrifying.
My hon. Friend Mary Kelly Foy talked about the right to protest being a basic human right, and she mentioned the role of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and its guidelines, which are clearly being breached.
We also heard from one of my old friends, Jim Shannon. In his typically generous fashion, he sent his condolences to all the victims of violence in Colombia and their families. Pertinently, he asked what the United Kingdom can do to help defend human rights in Colombia.
We also heard my right hon. Friend John McDonnell, who was previously one of our most senior Front Benchers and who has a long and proud record of protecting and defending journalists all over the world. Again, he talked about the targeting of journalists and the undermining of press freedom. A basic tenet of democracy is press freedom, yet the politicians and leaders of the current Colombian Government are stigmatising journalists and undermining the press freedom that is so important to guaranteeing democracy.
The violence that we have seen across Colombia over the past few months has run completely out of control. The country’s police and security forces have used unnecessary violence to contain widespread protests, which has put the historic 2016 peace agreement at severe risk.
Since the protests began, videos posted to social media have shown police shooting live ammunition at crowds, firing gas canisters into people’s faces, beating isolated protesters, making arbitrary arrests, indiscriminately using high-grade weaponry, and launching tear gas into enclosed spaces. Such behaviour, we all agree, is entirely and completely unacceptable. We must be clear. The protests were largely peaceful; the violence was by the Colombian police and security forces.
So far, all that the British Government have done is to sign a trade deal with Colombia in which both parties guarantee to respect democracy and human rights. Worryingly, despite that, two years on from signing the deal, the UK Government have not directly criticised the violence committed by the Colombian police. I urge the Minister to take this chance to condemn it fully today.
Not to embrace our role as the penholder and not to use our considerable influence could lead to further violence and further needless loss of life in Colombia. I urge the Minister, therefore, alongside condemning the violence, to commit to starting a review of any training support given to the Colombian police, and to call on the Colombian Government to ensure full disciplinary and legal investigations against all perpetrators of violence, especially considering the lack of advancement in cases from 2019 to 2020, when 2020 was the bloodiest year on record since the peace agreement was signed.
I also urge the Minister to call on the Colombian Government to listen to the proposals set out by the national strike committee. Finally, will she tell us what representations she or the United Kingdom Government have made, if any, to the Colombian ambassador to London and her counterparts in the Colombian Government, in particular with regard to increasing the Colombian Government’s efforts to implement the 2016 peace agreement?
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mrs Miller.
I am grateful to Kate Osborne for securing this debate. Peace and human rights in Colombia is an issue that means a great deal to her, as it does to me, and judging by this afternoon’s debate and the correspondence that I receive as a Minister, it means a great deal to hon. Members throughout the House. I am grateful for the contributions of all Members today. I will do my best to respond to as many of the points as I can.
Let me start by saying that the UK is a key supporter of Colombia’s historic 2016 peace agreement. We are proud to lead on the issue at the United Nations Security Council. Colombia is also a human rights priority country for this Government and an important partner to the UK in Latin America. Members may read our assessment of the current state of human rights in Colombia in the annual human rights report that was published by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office last week, on
This debate is set against a backdrop of worrying protest, which has spread across Colombia. Starting on
On Monday this week, I spoke to the Colombian ambassador to the UK for an update on the investigations and was pleased to learn that more than 200 investigations into alleged misconduct by police are now open. We have made it clear that we look to the Colombian authorities to fully investigate any reports of excessive use of force, and to take appropriate action against those responsible. We firmly support the right of all Colombians to protest peacefully, and the Colombian Government know that we look to them to guarantee respect for the rights to peaceful assembly and association. I reiterated that message publicly on
Some hon. Members asked about police training. The UK’s engagement goes beyond ministerial and official discussions. We work closely with the UN verification mission and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia, as well as the wider international community, in support of their efforts to reduce tensions and to promote dialogue. We are firmly committed to our programmes to help implement the peace agreement, to support peace, stability and security and to build a more prosperous Colombian society. President Duque’s promise of police reform, including increased oversight of officers, is an important step in response to the protests. One of our programmes supports the modernisation of the Colombian national police and is being implemented through the International Organisation for Migration, with strategic support and advice from Police Scotland. Like all our training of overseas law enforcement officers, the project is supported by the cross-governmental International Police Assistance Board and received an overseas security and justice assistance assessment to gauge and mitigate any human rights risks that arise from providing training to specific forces. We are not aware of any police units in Colombia that had received UK training support being involved in human rights violations.
One of our top priorities for Colombia is to support the Government to implement the 2016 peace accords. Since 2015, the UK has spent more than £63 million in support of peace, stability and security in Colombia. As hon. Members have highlighted, we lead on the issue at the UN Security Council, and we are the largest donor to the UN trust fund supporting the implementation of the peace agreement.
We recognise the important progress that has been achieved so far. Security conditions in much of the country are considerably better than over the past five years, and strides have been made towards the reintegration of former combatants. Our work at the United Nations in New York as penholder on Colombia’s peace process is making a real difference. In May, the Security Council unanimously adopted a UK-drafted resolution to expand the mandate of the UN Verification Mission in Colombia. This is a significant step, tasking the mission with verifying compliance with the transitional justice sentences of the special jurisdiction for peace.
On transitional justice specifically, which was raised by the hon. Member for Jarrow and others, the UK has always supported the vital work of the transitional justice elements of the peace accords, and we are extremely pleased that those institutions have been able to continue their work despite the challenges posed by covid-19. The UK Government have contributed over £26 million towards transitional justice mechanisms and victims of the conflict in Colombia since 2016, which includes supporting the truth commission’s work to gather testimony from Colombians—both in Colombia and abroad, including here in the UK—as well as working to enhance the investigatory capacity of the special jurisdiction for peace, Colombia’s post-conflict special court.
The transitional justice institutions established by the peace agreement are now reaching a critical phase in their work, with the special jurisdiction for peace due to hand down its first sentences, and the truth commission due to issue its final report, later this year.
Colleagues have also raised the issue of human rights defenders, so let me just say a few words on that issue, because despite what I have said and despite the fantastic progress that has been made, the situation in Colombia remains challenging and fragile. The country is in the grip of a prolonged third wave of covid-19. During 2020, Colombia saw a 6.8 percentage point increase in poverty levels and 7.4 million people, which is 15% of the population, now live in extreme poverty.
The continued presence of illegal armed groups in Colombia, and the impact that their violence and intimidation have on the vulnerable population, is a serious concern. In 2020, the UN confirmed that 133 human rights defenders had been killed. Since the signing of the peace deal with FARC in 2016, over 275 community leaders and former FARC members have been killed.
The UK has funded programmes to help Colombia tackle the conditions that make people susceptible to recruitment by armed groups, and that foster the persistent level of violence towards human rights defenders, social leaders, former FARC-EP combatants, trade unionists and others.
I will not delay the Minister for too long. I asked about the transfer of land, because I believe that if we tackle the real bread-and-butter issues, such as giving the land to the people who should be getting it through the agreement and the peace accords, that would also help to take away some of the sting.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue, and I was just about to come on to the issues of sustainable recovery, trade and economic opportunities, all of which are important.
As for raising our concerns, I can assure Members that we regularly raise specific cases of concern with the Colombian authorities. In February, the UK ambassador for human rights, Rita French, conducted a virtual visit to Colombia to discuss human rights issues. That followed on from Lord Ahmad’s human rights-focused virtual visit to Colombia in October 2020.
As Colombia begins its recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, the UK is committed to supporting the promotion of sustainable economic opportunities that will help tackle some of the root causes of the ongoing violence there. Our international climate finance commitments play a vital role in addressing that challenge. Since 2011, we have provided over £237 million in Colombia to help halt deforestation, improve land use and create profitable, sustainable supply chains that protect the environment. Last year, we announced a £64 million programme to support the Colombian Government in reducing deforestation, specifically in conflict-affected areas.
I am also pleased to say that this year marks the second anniversary of the signing of the UK-Colombia partnership for sustainable growth. As we look forward to COP26 later this year, that partnership is a concrete example of how a bilateral commitment for nature and sustainable growth can foster climate ambition globally.
Let me assure Members of our continued commitment to prioritising human rights in our relationship with Colombia, and I thank colleagues from across the House today for their interest, concern and activism, as well as for sharing their many ideas with me today. We welcome your perspectives, all of which help us to build a productive dialogue with the Colombian authorities and civil society groups to address the ongoing challenges in the implementation of the peace accord and to shore up the gains made since 2016.
I thank hon. Members for all their powerful contributions. I take the opportunity to thank Justice for Colombia and Grow Colombia for everything they do to help bring peace to the Colombian people.
Anyone who has been to Colombia—I know that a lot of us here today have had at least one opportunity to visit the country—will know that it is truly a beautiful country, with warm and welcoming people. So it is an absolute tragedy that it has been, and continues to be, the site of so much violence. It is a tragedy that all those who stand up to ask for an end to the huge disparity in wealth, for an end to the human rights abuses, for justice for crimes committed against their loved ones, for the protection of the environment, for their right to remain on ancestral lands and for the right to live in peace must risk their lives to do so.
However, there is hope: there is hope still in the peace process and in the advances that have already been made; and there is hope in seeing so many people in Colombia continuing to stand up in the belief that they can build a better future, in spite of all the risks that they face. So we must continue to do all that we can, as MPs and as a Government, to support everyone in Colombia who is working to improve the human rights situation and to make peace a reality for all.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered peace and human rights in Colombia.